By CLIO FRANCIS
Samoa is a beautiful place, a land of golden sand, towering coconut palms and wide, open smiles. But it is also a country in pain. Beneath its idyllic tropical veneer lies a nation intent on rebuilding its infrastructure and its people.
When a massive earthquake 8.2 on the Richter scale struck off the coast of Samoa in August last year, the subsequent tsunami left a trail of devastation on the south coast of the country's main island, Upolu.
Although the rebuilding is well under way, much of the Lalomanu area shows the destruction the tsunami wreaked: the beach fales and villages were reduced to rubble, and everyone in Lalomanu has their own tale of loss.
The elderly father killed in his bed, the mother who died trying to flee in her car, the young children swept away the wounds are raw, just below the surface of Samoa's national consciousness.
But Samoa has rebuilt before, and it is determined to do it again. Tourism is the lifeblood of Samoa's economy and in this time of hardship the government is pushing its holiday trade.
Flights from New Zealand are cheap and Samoa remains a resolutely charming and hospitable travel destination.
Your getaway begins the moment you step off the plane and are engulfed by a humid heat so different from New Zealand's cool climate. The drive from Faleolo International Airport to Apia will confirm you are far from home. The narrow road is edged with lush fruit trees and small villages dot the half-hour drive into Samoa's capital.
It is a different life, a simpler life. Stray dogs and pigs roam the road and smiling children wave at motorists, their arms weighed down with coconut leaves.
Apia is a hive of activity, a vibrant, dusty town which reverberates with the sounds of car horns and church bells. Men in bright lavalavas talk on the street and woman cluster in the food markets gathering supplies for post-church Sunday lunch.
Religion is everywhere in Samoa and so are the churches. Even in the remotest village, where electricity and internet connections are unheard of, there will be at least one monolithic church.
This is a monument to the island's firm Christian belief system which shapes its politics, family life and national identity.
Nestled on the outskirts of Apia stands a most colonial outpost, the former family home of novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. The imposing wooden home, which can be visited for a small fee, is furnished as it was when Stevenson lived there in the late 1890s.
Later, if you have the stamina, you can climb nearby Mt Vaea and visit the author's grave.
To get a sense of the real Samoa you must leave Apia behind. Thirty minutes from Apia is the idyllic Piula Cave Pools. Sitting beneath a theological college, these freshwater pools are a cool oasis away from the stifling heat and are a favourite with the locals.
Travel along this east coast road further and you will begin your ascent over the Le Mafa Pass. This spectacular road takes you deep into Samoa's mountainous jungle and offers magnificent views over the island.
If you want a quicker route from Apia to the tsunami-savaged south coast, take the Cross Island Road and check out the tiling on the house owned by disgraced former MP Taito Phillip Field.
The hour-long trip to Samoa's other island, Savai'i, is worth the muggy, crowded ferry ride. You can take your rental car aboard handy once you reach the larger of the two main islands.
At Savaii's Salelologa Wharf ferry terminal, watch out for the delicious homemade snacks. There are pre-drilled coconuts to buy, fresh baked pork buns, free range eggs or crispy taro chips.
All can be bought for a meagre sum and make the hot wait for the ferry more bearable.
In Salelologa, the largest settlement in Savai'i, stop to visit the old and new markets. Held in a hulking metal shed there is a vast array of cheap treasures.
If you can get past the heat there are hand-painted lavalavas, tapa cloths and all manner of Samoan paraphernalia going for a song.
Next, head to the north coast of Savai'i and stop in at the ‘Swimming with Turtles’ pond. The turtles here have been caught accidently by fishermen and live in the large ponds until they are eventually returned to the sea.
Visitors can take a dip with the turtles and even feed them a snack their food of choice appears to be juicy hunks of fresh papaya. But beware: one turtle mistook my white, gleaming leg for a piece of tropical fruit. Just as well they don't have teeth.
Further on, the majestic Saleaula lava fields are well worth a stop. In 1905 Savai'i's Mt Matavanu erupted, sending floods of molten lava flowing across the island. The village of Saleaula was all but destroyed, and churches, homes and graves remain fossilised in the hardened rock.
The more intrepid traveller should visit the famous Craterman, who lives in an isolated fale high in the mountains of Savai'i. Self-proclaimed Craterman has spent the last seven years building the road up the mountainside.
A 4WD is mandatory to get to the top, but once there, visitors can take a sweat-inducing trek to the summit and observe rare butterflies and mysterious native orchids. The views aren't bad either.
The best part of any Samoan holiday is, of course, the locals. Friendly, welcoming and always ready for a story, Samoans make any visitor feel like a VIP in paradise.
The writer travelled courtesy of Air New Zealand and Samoa Tourism Authority.
Getting there, staying there
ALL RATES ARE INDICATIVE ONLY CHECK ONLINE FOR SEASONAL PRICES AND DEALS AT SAMOA.TRAVEL.
Aggie Grey's Resort
: The latest addition to the Aggie Grey's chain, the resort offers unrivalled luxury, five restaurants, a spa, a golf course and water sports. It's a brilliant addition to Samoa's hospitality trade. Rooms from NZ$180 a double to NZ$510 for an executive suite and NZ$1290 for a presidential suite, all plus 15 per cent GST. Deals at samoa.travel for NZ$1199 for five days.
Aggie Grey's Hotel and Bungalows
: A Samoan institution in the bustling capital of Apia, this family-run hotel has served tourists, locals and visiting dignitaries since 1933.
Five-night package from Harvey World Travel including return airfares to Samoa flying Air New Zealand, five nights accommodation staying in a standard family room (bed and breakfast) from NZ$899 per person sharing a twin room, until March 28 .
Insel Fehrman Hotel
: Air New Zealand Holidays has flights plus five nights from NZ$839 per person share twin ex Wellington. Details at
. Lusia's Lagoon Chalets
: Just minutes from the Savai'i ferry terminal, Lusia's is the perfect getaway, nestled in lush bush with a wharf and in-house restaurant. Lusia's provides a solid cheap-and-cheerful option from NZ$55 per person.
Vacations Beach Fales
: A simpler option for the more intrepid traveller on Savai'i's northern coast, family owned with traditional fales. A real island experience and perfect for travellers on a budget, from NZ$90 per person per night.
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies several times each week from Auckland to Apia. Fares from Wellington cost from NZ$688 return.
SOURCE - stuff.co.nz